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Miss Garnett’s Angel: In Cold Domain

Sometimes I pick books with the same ‘flavour’ to follow each other because I don’t want to leave the place the first book has taken me, sometimes it happens by accident. Reading Miss Garnett’s Angle (Sally Vickers) right after In Cold Domain (Anne Fine) brought out similarities in two very different books. They both have characters trapped in being who they are, not happy but with no thought of considering whether who they are is who they want to be. In both cases they’re redeemed into happiness or at least experience (passion or suffering – passio either way). It would be crude to say they’re redeemed by Catholic men; Miss Garnett’s Carlo and the Monsignore in Venice, Barbara’s Spanish fiancé Miguel-Angel are quite explicitly Catholic and that’s part of the plot but more as a functional element than a signifier. Really, they’re redeemed by otherness – and by an openness to the possibility that they can be other than they are. Barbara says to her brother William that she likes his boyfriend Caspar because he knows what is right for William and what makes him happy and her Miguel-Angel asks her to change her obsession with her dysfunctional family and her passive-aggressive mother not because he doesn’t like it but because he doesn’t like who it makes her be. No-one tells Miss Garnett what’s right for her but she discovers what’s been wrong for her, as she finds a luminous sense of wonder about angels and the people she meets and love (human and divine).

Both books have that very English attention to large emotions trapped in small situations, like Barbara Pym or Orwell in the Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying or Stella Gibbons in the books that aren’t funny; a badly cooked cutlet or an unwelcoming reception of your donation to the jumble or your unworthy wish not to take the communion cup after someone with wet lips or the subtle cruelties of bringing someone ‘down to earth’ ‘for their own good’ are at the time, everything there is in the world. The larger situations - breaking relationships, suicide and deception - are behind the smaller situations, pulling them out of shape but they’re not addressed. It’s emotion denied, turned in, constrained as a weapon or hoarded as a defence, parcelled out in fear or ground down by dreariness, but suddenly flashing out as a gleam of gold – turning the tables or just seeing for the first time what’s on them . A turning in of energies instead of out, as the Goot Doctor tells Judith Starkadder (one reason Cold Comfort Farm is so biting is that it takes this convention and shreds it completely). Both books have fairy-tale elements; quests, treasure hunts, the frog discovered to be a prince, the unexpected legacy. Those give a sense of lightness and wonder to a story that could be dark or grim, but it’s the opening to emotion and possibility and the eventual truths and lettings go that make the transformations.

In Cold Domain has more bite, more sex and more wheelchairs; Miss Garnett’s Angel has more Venice. They both have a lightening sense of seeing, and moving beyond, human frailty .

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Mary Branscombe
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